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Will 'Speed-the-Plow' turn up Tony Awards?

October 24, 2008 |  7:10 pm

Fans of playwright David Mamet are in for a double treat on Broadway this season. Mamet's first major success, "American Buffalo," is being revived for the second time next month with Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment and Cedric the Entertainer making their Broadway debuts alongside Tony nominee John Leguziamo. And this week marked the much-heralded return of "Speed-the-Plow," his savage 1988 play that skewers Hollywood. Joining perennial Tony nominee Raul Esparza in this scorching satire are two more Broadway babes — Emmy winner Jeremy Piven ("Entourage") and Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men").

Twenty years ago "Speed-the-Plow" lost the best play race to David Henry Hwang's gender-bending "M. Butterfly." This season, three best=play winners have already been revived: "All My Sons" (1947); "A Man For All Seasons" (1962); and "Equus" (1975). Still to come: classics "Hedda Gabler," "Blithe Spirit," and "Waiting for Godot." However, the rave reviews for this production could well propel it into the Tonys race for best revival. And, after all, Mamet's 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning "Glengarry Glen Ross" did take home that Tony in 2005.

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No doubt hoping that some of that Tony Awards luck rubs off on him is leading man Raul Esparza who has struck out in three different categories — featured actor in a play ("The Homecoming," 2008), lead actor in a musical ("Company," 2007), and featured actor in a musical ("Taboo," 2004). Ron Silver, who originated the role in 1988, won lead actor in a play for his efforts. While his co-star Joe Mantegna did not get a Tony nod, they did compete at the Drama Desk kudos where Silver prevailed. Alas, Madonna, the poorly reviewed third side of that original lopsided triangle, had to make do with being grateful for the fact that there was no theater equivalent to moviedom's Razzie awards. This time 'round, both Piven and Moss could well be rewarded with Tony nominations for their first roles on Broadway.

Among the raves for the revival was this from Elysa Gardner of USA Today: "Director Neil Pepe, a frequent Mamet collaborator, brings a keen ear for the playwright's blunt, jazzy rhythms, and he couldn't have better players. Jeremy Piven's Bobby is softer-textured but also more disturbing than the showbiz animal he plays on 'Entourage'; we see the anxiety and flickers of good intentions underlying his cool arrogance. Raul Esparza's Charlie is more sharply funny, and more revelatory; his brutal resourcefulness at the end will leave you titillated and haunted. Elisabeth Moss has a tougher assignment as Karen, whose motives and, frankly, intelligence are in question. She professes to be naive, and Moss, with her wide eyes and girlish voice, never entirely rules out that possibility."

Michael Kuchwara of the AP said, "Moss is deceptively low-key, a nice contrast to all the screaming going on around her. She's a standout in the play's second act, set in Bobby's apartment, when Karen persuasively makes the case for filming the seemingly unfilmable novel. Piven's Bobby is the play's moral center, or at least, the one person on stage who has qualms about what is happening and doesn't quite know what to do about it. The actor has perfected the persona of bad-little-boy-lost and wears the snarling bewilderment here with considerable expertise. There's no such indecision in Charlie. The man is a ferocious wheeler-dealer, capable of glad-handing and back-stabbing at the same time. Wearing a fierce glint and a sly smile, Esparza is one of those kinetic actors who doesn't hold anything back. He's full-tilt ahead, tailor-made for the pugnacious Charlie."

Ben Brantley of the New York Times praised the performers more than the play: "Mr. Piven has the pivotal role, and he executes it with uncanny grace and intelligence." And "In contrast, Mr. Esparza runs full speed ahead with his ambition-stoked character, tapping the full kinetic force he artfully kept under wraps in recent revivals of 'Company' and 'The Homecoming.'" And about Ms. Moss, she is "bringing a naked clarity to her unvarnished, tinny-voiced Karen that makes the play hang together in ways it didn’t before."

Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News also lauded the trio: "Esparza, a Broadway star who slips effortlessly between musicals and plays, gives a supercharged performance. As he prowls the stage, dragging on cigarettes and staring out at something — the pot of gold? — he nails the essence of a twitchy man so close to success he'll explode if he misses his shot. Piven is an excellent foil. While downplaying the loudmouthed, sharklike behavior we've seen from him on 'Entourage,' he shows Gould's power-mad side as well as the vulnerability that gradually becomes more apparent. Taking on the role originated by Madonna, Moss is a delightful blend of prettiness, naivete and ambiguity, all right for Karen, who may or may not be that innocent."

And finally, though Linda Winer of Newsday was the least enthused, she still thought, "Despite a cast that looks wonderful on paper, director Neil Pepe's production is small, tight and more angry than fabulously, shamelessly, joyously rude. Piven, perhaps trying not to duplicate his sleaze-triumphant agent, Ari Gold, from 'Entourage,' plays Bobby Gould — new production head of a studio — with a soft underbelly that works against the surprise of his potential conversion to art movies. As Charlie, Bobby's second-banana on the verge of his big chance, Esparza delivers Mamet's motormouth, poetic scatology with a scowling intensity that overshadows the joy of Mamet's third-generation Jewish punch lines. Moss, best known as the quietly upwardly mobile Peggy Olson in 'Mad Men,' finds a credibility that Madonna missed completely as Karen, the temp who wants Bobby to green-light a deadly novel about radiation as God's gift to humanity."

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre)


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